Exile in 19th-Century Haiti
- Matthew J. SmithMatthew J. SmithDepartment of History and Archaeology, University of the West Indies
Of the many conditions pronounced that have been strongly featured in the Caribbean experience since the ending of slavery in the 19th century, exile ranks as one of the most profound. Its impact is far-reaching. The circumstances that encourage exile are well known and involve either a willful decision to leave one’s country as a result of political and economic distress or a forced departure sanctioned by the state in an effort to quash internal dissent. There is also the case of political exile of state leaders who fall from grace, a situation associated more with Haiti than with other countries in the Caribbean. Whatever the reasons, exiles and refugees—like other migrants from the Caribbean—brought the Caribbean experience to wider attention. People from the islands surrounded by the Caribbean Sea have since the first days of colonial rule made of that sea a highway for travel to other places, an escape and entry into the wider Atlantic.
The personal impact of exile is manifest in several domains, but most obviously in Caribbean culture. The Rastafari faith in Jamaica has as one of its fundamental beliefs that blacks in the Caribbean are in a state of displacement, taken by force to an oppressive Babylon. The Rastafari desire for repatriation to Africa as necessary to bring to an end centuries of exilic life in the Caribbean is not uncommon, nor is their spiritual and cultural preoccupation with exile. Caribbean writers have consistently written about exile and a yearning to return to an imagined home: Barbadian writer George Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile, Martinican Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, Jamaican Thomas MacDermot’s poem “A Song for Exiles” (written under the name Tom Redcam), or Bob Marley’s Exodus document the exile experience from several perspectives. Common to all these examples is a melancholic sense of rootlessness and guilt that exile creates among those who have left. There is also a persistent theme of the Caribbean exile as wanderer, moving in and out of different locations across the Atlantic while searching for both a spiritual and physical home and a rationale for their condition. It is a perceived inability to settle completely in a foreign country that produces this guilt. Bob Marley captured this perfectly in “Running Away,” the most poignant of his songs recorded during his exile from Jamaica in 1977: “You must have done something wrong / Why you can’t find a place where you belong?” which is followed later by the rationalization of the decision to leave—“It is better to live on the house top than in a house full of confusion.”
The longing to return, whether to Africa, Europe, or Haiti, has been a constant theme in Haiti and the Caribbean, and it is linked to the long centuries of slavery. Metaphors of slavery and its associated sense of displacement are replete in the literature on exile not only in the 20th-century writings of Depestre, Dany Lafferière, Danticat, the art of Edouard Duval-Carrié, and the music of the Haitian diaspora, but also in references to the social conditions of the Caribbean’s populations during the period of slavery. If exile has been a persistent theme in Caribbean history, popping in and out of narratives of the nation at various points on a temporal map of the region, in Haiti it has been woven completely into the fabric of Haitian national history. Exile has always carried a powerful resonance in Haitian culture because it has been a pervasive aspect of Haitian political life. Twentieth-century cultural references to exile and displacement are numerous. In the decades since the coming to power of François Duvalier in 1957, which precipitated mass migration from the island, the theme of exile has been consistently and most powerfully articulated by Haitian writers and singers. From Réne Depestre’s famous poem “Exile,” in which he compared the country itself to a departure gate in an airport with people waiting to leave, to Edwidge Danticat’s novels, the theme is ever-present. Rodrigue Milien’s painful song of exile in the Duvalier years, “Nostalgie,” sung in both Creole and English, poignantly captured the loneliness of the Haitian exile: “When someone leaves his country far away and life is mistreating you and you want to kill yourself … take me back to Haiti, take me back to Haiti.”
This article considers the roots of exile in Haiti’s long 19th century, which Haitian scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has suggested began with independence in 1804 and ended with U.S. military occupation in 1915, through the personal experiences and writings of three prominent 19th-century exiles: Joseph Balthazar Inginac (Mémoires, 1843), Edmond Paul (Les causes de nos malheurs, 1882), and Anténor Firmin (Lettres de Saint-Thomas, 1910). None of these men were ever president of Haiti, but they all wielded political and intellectual influence. Common to all three was their forced departure from Haiti for political reasons. They each settled in locations across the Caribbean at different times. Notably, none of these writers settled in North America or Europe. From afar they wrote extensively on Haiti’s predicament and the impact of exile on Haiti and their personal lives. Through a reading of their experiences in exile it is possible to arrive at a fresh perspective of the place of exile in the unfolding of Haiti’s post-independence development.